Want to know the worst way to teach children about stranger danger? Earlier this month, a mother in Missouri set out to teach her six-year-old boy a lesson in talking to strangers with the help of the boy's aunt and grandmother. A co-worker in on the act allegedly kidnapped the boy, told him he'd never see his mother again, showed him a handgun to stop him from crying and then locked him in a basement, hands and feet tied with plastic bags. When he was finally released, the boy got a lecture about talking to people he doesn't know. Every adult involved in the "lesson" was later arrested. So, that's definitely how not to do things.
Child-safety experts from across Canada provide their advice on how to do it the right way.
When to start
Child Safe Canada runs programs for kids as young as 4. "Parents should start teaching their kids about safety as soon as they're able to understand simple concepts. Simple concepts make safe kids," says Tracey Warren, national director of injury prevention and education at Child Safe Canada, a non-profit child-safety education organization. Start with the concept of crossing the street safely, and move up to introducing the concept of not going anywhere with someone you don't know without permission, she says. "Teaching safety isn't an event, it's a process."
Don't freak kids out
"Sometimes as parents we feel we have to instill fear in our children because that's the only way the message will get across, but that's the worst thing we can do," says Pina Arcamone, director general of the Missing Children's Network, a Montreal-based organization. Talk to your children the same way you would about fire safety at home or why it's important to wear a helmet on a bicycle, Arcamone says. "Adopt a very natural and reassuring tone," she says.
Move beyond 'stranger danger'
"If we teach our children to fear strangers we've really misguided them," Warren says. "The majority of sexual abuse and abductions is by people known to the children." Besides, there may be many situations where a child needs to talk to a stranger, Arcamone says. Instead, we should teach kids to trust their instincts and to not go anywhere with anyone unless they have permission – what Child Safety Canada calls "the golden rule of safety."
Info every kid should know
Every child should know his or her address, mom and dad's complete names and phone numbers. It's also important for kids to know safe places or adults to go to when they are in trouble, whether it's a corner store or a neighbour's house, Arcamone says. "We're empowering children by helping them make safe and wise decisions by teaching them who are the safe adults they can approach and where are these safe places they can wait for help," she says.
Use the buddy system
"It's just safety in numbers," says Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. The vast majority of kids who have been abducted or gone missing were by themselves, Classen says. A "buddy" has to be someone who can look after the child, whether it's an aunt or a babysitter, Classen says. Make a list with your child of who buddies are, she says.
Practice, practice, practice
Play what-if scenarios, Arcamone says. What would you do if you're waiting outside school to go home when a neighbour offers you a ride home? What would you do if a stranger asks for directions? If someone invited you into his home? "That gives them the opportunity to problem-solve and provide you with what they would do in a situation," Arcamone says. The more you practise scenarios with children, the more empowered they will become, Classen says. "We want to build up children's competence and their confidence," she says.
What to scream
It's terrifying to contemplate, but kids need to be taught it. If they are ever grabbed by a stranger, they should scream, "This is not my father" or "This is not my mother, I need help" Arcamone says. "If the child only screams, bystanders might think, 'Oh, he's just throwing a tantrum.'"